Over the past year personal drones have drawn a ton of media coverage, more and more frequently from TV news and high-profile outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Vice and the Washington Post. I personally come from a liberal arts background, and until I first entered this field in the summer of 2013 hadn’t caught any media coverage of personal drones. Even my friends, many of whom read Wired and certainly consume their fair share of TED talks, were unaware that such an incredible technology had trickled down to where it was accessible and affordable for everyday users. But this year has seen a precipitous rise in mainstream media coverage, in parallel with technical advancements that have driven many more sales. Today I’d be surprised if anyone in my circles hasn’t seen or heard something about drones from one media outlet or another.
Of course, this steep interest curve applies to any new game-changing technology. But the drone discussion has other dimensions to it, addressed later, which I have trouble finding true analogs for in any recent high-tech boom. So with a year or so of major media coverage to reflect upon, I’d like to examine the shape that this coverage has taken: What does it say about public perception of this technology? How and why might the media be shaping that perception? And what is their — and our — responsibility to the public?
Amazon Prime Air
Breaking the news about drones
If there was a catalyst, at least domestically, Amazon’s delivery drone commercial, released almost exactly a year ago, seems to have been the first big media moment for consumer and commercial drones. (Incidentally, those Amazon drones are powered by our Pixhawk autopilot.) Since then media outlets around the world ranging in scope from 60 Minutes to the Northern Nevada Business Weekly have run stories on the budding technology.
These stories tend to follow one of two arcs. Either they come from tech venues such as Fast Co. and Vice’s Motherboard, or from traditional tech-secular outlets like the Post or 60 Minutes. To state the obvious, tech publications tend toward providing technological future-casts, as well as releases and reviews of new products and applications. Traditional media usually take a broader view — and often more coarse and skeptical — which frequently leads to speculation about the size of the emerging market and the impact of drones on our daily public and private lives. These distinctions aren’t surprising. But they are consequential.
Our company is obviously steeped in the tech world, as are most of the folks who read this blog. That said, I’d like to put the tech outlets to the side and focus on mainstream media, which have more influence over the general public and are a much better barometer for the zeitgeist.
Food delivery by drone. SMH.
DRONES ARE AMAZING!!
First came the wordplay. “Consumer drones take flight!” “Drone industry on the horizon!” “The sky’s the limit!” Over time this has thankfully abated. Somewhat. But these early headlines, eagerly posted by clever writers who imagine themselves first to the punch, do signal the sudden arrival of an exciting technology in the public sphere. This is echoed in the awed tone and wide eyes of news anchors and TV personalities upon first confronting a small drone in real life: “Amazing!”
And these things really are amazing, especially to people outside of tech circles who didn’t see this coming so fast. Drones, which let us see our world from above, deliver a striking and uncommon perspective on our lives — and now they can fly themselves, land themselves, control a camera on their own and follow and film you automatically. It’s a lot to take in at once. On top of all this, for many people the discussion has made what seems like a sudden leap from the military to consumer applications. The astonishment is understandable, the puns forgivable.
And, to a certain extent, so is the hysteria. When Kanye West said he was legitimately afraid that a drone might drop into his swimming pool and electrocute his daughter (!), the media ran with it. Ridiculous, but he — and the media, to an extent — was really just expressing an anxiety often concomitant to astonishment: fear of the unknown. Drones are highly advanced, technical, versatile and exotic, as are their applications, and it’s difficult for the uninitiated to fully digest the technology at the same speed with which they’re being informed about its existence. Of course they have questions.
However, it’s the media’s job to ask the tough questions and use those answers to tell a whole story. But when it comes to drones, are they even asking the questions?
Helicopter chases drone
The easy story
Sometimes it seems like they aren’t. Jason Koebler, who covers drones for Motherboard, tells me, “The media will often go for the easy story rather than the actual story.” He points to an incident this year in New York City where a hobbyist flew his quadcopter near a bridge, and the police responded by chasing after it in a helicopter. “The headlines were all along the lines of ‘drone tries to hit helicopter,’” Koebler says. “Which wasn’t at all the case. But no one followed up with the story because they got the easy scoop: Drones are scary, not the cops.”
This particular instance also illustrates how modern media shapes coverage: These days news stories are largely driven by what people will click on, and because overworked reporters are expected to cover such a vast and promiscuous array of subjects they’ll often just write the most catching headline, knock out the story and move on. They often don’t have the time to dig deeper or follow up, as Jason says he sometimes experiences himself.
“Not a lot of places have a dedicated drone expert,” says Matt Waite, head of the world’s first Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska. “There are a lot of general assignment reporters out there doing the story of the day. So if we think the general public is misinformed about drones, we have to remember that most reporters are coming from that same general public: They don’t know what they don’t know. They do the story, get the word ‘drone’ in there and move on without asking, ‘What does this mean?’ We’ve reached a disappointing place in journalism where there’s not even time to do that.”
So there you have one reason for the sensationalism: the media’s neglect, or ignorance, of the bigger story. How, then, do the media get schooled?
Drones do good work.
The real story
First they need to see that there actually is a bigger story. “People are really, really interested in drones,” Koebler says, “but not in the day-to-day minutiae of them. And right now a lot of the real story is going on in FAA meetings and Congress, and that’s pretty boring stuff.”
And more and more, it seems that the word “drone” itself obscures the real story.
“That word has been tortured beyond all definition,” says Waite. “Look, we’ve got these toy RC minicopters that cost $30 and fit in the palm of your hand — if people call those things ‘drones’ and they also call a Global Hawk a drone, then ‘drone’ is a meaningless phrase.”
Waite cites an incident earlier this year when Sen. Barbara Feinstein saw a toy helicopter hovering outside her window. When she called it a drone, the media ran with it rather than correcting her. “It’s consequential,” Waite says. “The media report ‘drone’ in order to create attention around a story, and people don’t know the difference.”
Instead of trying to coin a new word or turning to an even more obscure alphabet soup of acronyms, Waite suggests the media start defining their terms specifically to each story by applying prefixes: “consumer drone”; “ambulance drone”; “agriculture drone.”
But any steps will take time. “This stuff was horrifying!” Koebler says, referring to his initial reaction two years ago, when he began covering drones. “It was so foreign to me, and I think it’s foreign to a lot of reporters who are given the story today. But then you fly one or see some cool videos and start learning more about what’s going on in the consumer space, and your thinking evolves.”
All reporting follows this triple learning curve: the media have to learn the subject; then they learn what’s really important and how best to communicate that; and then there’s the public’s own learning curve. Hobbyists and techies might devour all kinds of stories about drones and drone technology, but it’s still not easily digestible to the general public.
So although journalistic ethics do in fact play a role here, it’s also tough to really pin anything on the media at large, especially when you consider that many of them might not yet understand what’s at stake.
The FAA will likely act with a blunt instrument
What’s at stake
Waite is right in that it seems more and more the case that “drone” means nearly anything that flies.* And this is actually pretty telling, given the FAA’s current stance that they have authority over anything that flies.
What I mean is that it’d be good to remember here that language often shapes the way we think. Waite believes that one consequence of spreading the term “drone” so thin will be that this broad definition trickles over into the broader cultural conversation and into regulation. “And over-regulating drones, treating a 3-lb. craft like an IRIS+ the same way you’d treat a manned aircraft, that’s insane.”
Koebler has a similar view. “The way the FAA talks about this you’d think there were crashes every two seconds,” he says. “But there are hundreds of people out there today who have built successful small businesses on this technology. It’s just what America is looking for in terms of the economy. It’s exciting, it’s a whole new industry, and it could very easily all go away.”
In other words, an uninformed or misinformed public can’t competently correct, guide or even evaluate the legislative process. The FAA’s drone regulations will have some pretty far-reaching economic and social consequences in years to come. It’s important that the public understands just what’s at stake here so we can contribute to or at the very least assess the regulatory process, and it’s the media’s responsibility to inform this interaction. We don’t want to see this exciting new industry evaporate before it has the chance to get off the ground.*
Privacy with drones
However, there are many people in America who wouldn’t mind seeing this new industry get grounded by the government* — and Kanye may be among them.
Privacy concerns are, unfortunately, nothing new. I don’t need to rehash the revelations of the government’s alarming activity in this arena, but I would like to point out that, at least on the surface, Little Brother should seem much more startling to us. Look: Everyone around you right now has an exquisitely engineered spy camera hidden in a pocket! Smartphones are inconspicuous, and they instantly — constantly, even — interact with the internet. Spying and spreading information has never been easier or more effective in all of human history.
Yet we’re not brandishing pitchforks at Apple. No torches have been lit over the Amazon Fire. Drone technology, however, is for some reason a different story. And it’s spawned another unavoidable media trope: What will drones do to our right to privacy?
“People in the industry are too flip about privacy concerns,” Koebler says. “Others, many in the media, can be too fear-mongering. But privacy will be a bigger deal than the industry suggests.”
A big reason for this may be that drones — unlike the internet they’re tangible things; unlike phones they’re alien-looking and physically removed from us so that we may observe them at a distance conductive of skepticism — are a perfect and timely embodiment of our broader and longstanding fears about privacy in the digital age.
But again, this seems to be a more nuanced conversation than the media are up for.
For instance, it turns out that most states — though not all — already recognize a civil tort called “intrusion upon seclusion.” This law basically means that if I spy on you, you can take me to court. But as Waite points out, problems that have been solved years ago* don’t make for good headlines.
“I honestly think some people are using privacy issues as a cynical ploy to generate attention,” he says. “There’s a certain section of the American population who are privacy absolutists, who believe, erroneously*, that they have a constitutional right to privacy. And yes, some journalists are intentionally using drone stories as a way to rile these people up and get clicks.”
Waite points out that consumer drones are actually terrible spy tools. He’s right: They’re basically flying arcade games, loud and eye-catching, and most can’t fly for much more than 20 minutes. Waite says that if he wanted to use his drone to spy on each of the 100,000 or so homes in his town of Lincoln, Nebraska, it would take him years. “And let’s face it,” Waite says. “Your backyard is boring.”
In fact, looking at it this way, the privacy concerns that drones raise — and they’re not insubstantial — might turn out to be a good thing, a catalyst for a more broad and long-overdue serious public conversation about privacy rights in America.
“There needs to be a grown-up conversation about privacy and right now we’re not having it,” Waite says.
As the media climbs its learning curve, we’ve seen some substantial improvement in coverage. “Reporting has gotten much better over this year, actually over the last several months,” says Koebler. “You see outlets doing a really good job of not taking everything the FAA says at face value. You see more stories about drones in general. You don’t see the pictures of a Predator anymore when the story’s about a photographer or a search and rescue team.”
That’s comforting: In the end, it really is just a matter of time. Time, however, might not exactly be on our side here. The FAA is under the gun to pass drone regulations this year, and if the rumors are true, these regulations could suffocate the commercial drone industry. That’s largely because, just like with the media, the size, speed and complexity of the drone industry’s arrival caught the FAA by surprise. Over time they’ll refine their thinking and likely loosen the regulations, but we could have, and should have, gotten a much better jump on it. This illustrates just how critical it is that we maintain a responsible and proactive media culture. Even Kanye is consequential.
*A drone is any vehicle whose movement can be fully controlled by an autopilot. This rules out those minicopters. And this also means that some popular quadcopters on the market today aren’t even true drones. But it’s also fair to point out here that under this definition many manned aircraft could also be considered drones. So a drone isn’t necessarily unmanned — UAVs are a subset of drones, just as autonomous rovers and boats and subs can be. Well. Now we’re starting to see some of the trouble the media might have with communicating this stuff.
*Ironic, given many of these folks’ noninterventionist politics.
*We do have laws that deal with our “reasonable expectation of privacy” at a local level, but those are also problematic because what’s “reasonable” changes from person to person. Many people don’t have a detailed understanding of privacy law and what it means to them. This is the same reason “drone” makes the UAV discussion so difficult: you have the same words, but they can mean different things.
*Complicated. The Constitution doesn’t explicitly mention privacy anywhere, though some hold that a constitutional right to privacy has been inferred by a combination of interpretations of the 1st, 4th, 5th and 14th Amendments. Today, the right to privacy is most frequently addressed at a local level. You can read a little more here, but I think that at this point we’ve just got to break out the Googler.